Vocabulary may be defined as all the words and phrases within a language that an individual knows and uses (Sebastian n.p). Therefore, all people build up their vocabulary throughout life.
We tend to continuously gather new words that help us to interpret our world. While we cannot say our view of the world is dependent on our vocabulary, we can say it has an important influence on it. To learn a new language, we are required to gather enough vocabulary of the new language in order to use it meaningfully. Vocabulary is an important part of knowledge acquisition.
Vocabulary alone is not enough as we often need to learn the context in which each word can be used. Each language and culture has rules that govern the usage of each word. Some languages have gendered nouns, while others do not assign gender to nouns and objects. This results in varied ways of expressing ideas and describing objects. It is important to note that language and vocabulary are not all there is to what we learn. Sometimes we can learn in the absence of vocabulary.
In order to fully analyze this statement, it is important to first gain an understanding of the relationship between language and vocabulary. Language is by far among the most important human traits (Benson & Prosser 222). Through language man can express himself almost fully.
Each language is unique, each having its own characteristic structure. The structure of language that we use is partly determined by the vocabulary we have. Language is thought to influence culture and vice versa. If language influences thought, then it can be argued that culture also influences how we see things.
How we interpret and report what is going on in our environment is partly limited by the vocabulary we have. Vocabulary is a part of language that helps us describe things better. We continuously improve our vocabulary throughout life. No amount of it can be described as sufficient. We perceive things in a way that is expected by our language. Language and vocabulary can have far reaching effects on the way we learn and how much we can learn.
In areas of knowledge like science, vocabulary limits the range of what we can know. This is true in physiology, a subject that tries to explain normal body function.
In everyday conversation, terms such as ‘hypertension’ and ‘blood pressure’ may be used. Awareness of these terms does not mean that one can explain the concepts behind disease causation and development. This is because knowledge obtained in this manner is partial. In general usage the term ‘hypertension’ refers to a rise in blood pressure. The information carried in a definition is not sufficient for one to know the subject in detail.
It only gives one a general view of the matter. These terms, therefore, limit what we can learn from them when they are used without an appropriate understanding of the meanings behind them (Crane & Hannibal 98). To understand these concepts well, one has to go beyond simple definitions. It is clear that these terms have deep meanings that a learner can only grasp by studying them in detail.
Another area of science that vocabulary limits what a learner can know is physics. Development of knowledge in this field is limited by language and vocabulary we have already acquired. For example, consider Newton’s laws of motion. Newton came up with the Newton’s first law of motion, Newton’s second law of motion and Newton’s third law of motion by conducting experiments. Before Newton could come up with these laws, he had to have the knowledge of the underlying concepts of velocity and speed.
These equations describe the relationship between mass and the velocity of a moving object. Therefore, the vocabulary he had acquired earlier in life informed his discoveries. In chemistry we rely on previous knowledge of molecules to calculate Molarity. To be able to perceive what is going on in a reaction, knowledge of atoms and electrons is crucial.
This is commonly referred to as moving from the known to the unknown. This shows that development of knowledge in some cases is restricted by the vocabulary we have. Vocabulary can also shape the science of astronomy. The science of space navigation is influenced by vocabulary to some extent (Levinson and Wilkins 165). Navigation is a skill that requires an accurate sense of direction.
This skill can either be acquired through learning geography or through vocabulary in our first language. Some languages use direction to describe the relationship between two points in space. Therefore, people from such cultures are thought to be better oriented in an unfamiliar area than others.
However, the belief that vocabulary limits the development of knowledge in science can be challenged. While it is true that vocabulary informs the progress of knowledge development, it is possible for knowledge to develop in the absence of vocabulary. It can be argued that many discoveries in science were accidental.
They were made while the scientists were studying and trying to understand something else. In such cases lack of prior exposure to relevant vocabulary did not stop them from describing the new phenomena. It just presented a small initial difficulty.
Newton for instance, described the force of gravity without prior exposure to a similar situation. It is therefore, inaccurate to claim that vocabulary always limits our thinking in science. Knowledge development in science may progress with or without vocabulary. More Often than not knowledge is developed first before the appropriate vocabulary to describe it is developed.
In some areas of study like history knowledge cannot precede vocabulary because there is no way of experiencing the past. Since students cannot go back in time, they can only gain an understanding of the past through vocabulary. What happened in the past cannot be witnessed now.
There is no way of reconstructing historic events. Vocabulary helps historians to at least have a feeling of the past. Vocabulary is developed to describe historic events. Knowledge develops from this vocabulary. Historians often develop vocabulary for a particular event in the past. This shows that vocabulary can indeed come before knowledge thus controlling what new things we may learn.
However, this claim can be criticized for being simplistic. It claims that meaningful learning in history cannot take place without prior exposure to certain vocabulary. This implies that learners have no control over what is considered important history. It gives an impression that some people have to sit down and come up with what we consume in this subject area. It is clear that knowledge may precede vocabulary in this field.
Sometimes what becomes history are events that we witnessed. It is not uncommon to hear people describing a current event as historic. As the event is taking place we have already decided that it is going to be of historical importance. History does not always have to be events that took place long time ago.
A wide range of vocabulary is useful to individuals in other ways. Having a wide range of vocabulary broadens our thinking. With a wide range of vocabulary we are able to communicate better with other people. We may also learn new things while talking with other people. This is because we can understand what they are telling us. Intelligence also tends to improve alongside this. A wide range of vocabulary helps us perceive and interpret our environment better. In a way we could say that we are as good as what we know
The claim helps establish a connection between knowledge acquisition and vocabulary. Language and vocabulary can influence what we learn and how we learn it. It is apparent that vocabulary does not limit what we can learn in all cases. Sometimes vocabulary my limit what we can learn and sometimes it can result in a fulfilling learning experience.
In some subject areas vocabulary is important in the development of new knowledge. People may reason and think differently depending on culture and language. It is not clear which one has a greater influence on our thinking. Though the argument has some support, it is important to remind learners that they can still learn even when vocabulary is limited. We can, therefore, argue that vocabulary is not always a pre-requisite to learning.
Benson, Thomas W., & Prosser, Michael. Readings in classical rhetoric. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 2002. Print.
Crane, John, and Hannibal, Jette. IB Psychology Course Companion: International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. USA: Oxford University Press. 2009. Print.
Levinson, C., and Wilkins, P. Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Print.
Sebastian, W. “Vocabulary”. BalancedReading.com. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.